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Review: Piccadilly: The Circus at the Heart of London by Midge Gillies
A guest post by London Historians member Stephen Hoare.

piccadilly circus _ 200pxAt the very epicentre of London’s West End, Piccadilly Circus occupies a unique place in the hearts of Londoners and tourists alike. Perched atop the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain, the statue of Eros exercises a talismanic power. Gillies’ impressively well-researched book sets out to document, in her words, the “biography of a place”.

With an eye for quirky detail, the author draws on the many lives that have contributed to the area’s unique appeal beginning with the story of Eros sculptor Alfred Gilbert. In the following pages, music hall artiste Marie Lloyd takes a bow as does the American actress who starred in the silent film Piccadilly: Anna May Wong. London Underground architects Leslie Green and Charles Holden, a West Indian band leader, gays, queers, and a cross dressing hotel concierge all play a part in this interwoven story. The cast of the great and the not so good includes the villainous 1930s drug dealer Billy Chang, “the most evil man in London” according to police inspector Bob Fabian, the famous Fabian of the Yard. These lively vignettes are chosen for their close association with the Circus.

The book’s title pages include a helpful map pinpointing places of interest mentioned in the text such as the London Pavilion, the Criterion Restaurant and Lillywhite’s as well as other institutions now vanished such as Swan & Edgar’s, Lyon’s Corner House, Simpsons – now Waterstone’s flagship book store. However, readers should be aware that the Café Monico shown on the map in Shaftesbury Avenue is a modern rebrand and has nothing to do with the famous café founded in 1877 which once occupied a site facing directly onto the Circus and was demolished in 1958.

The book is divided into five parts each of which expand upon a theme such as the construction and significance of iconic Eros fountain; Piccadilly during the Great War; the Jazz Age; Film and fashion; and culminating in the blackout of World War 2 and the immediate post-war years.  This defines the scope of the book which is essentially an in-depth examination of the social history of Piccadilly Circus from the 1890s to the 1950s – a span of just over half a century.

In choosing this time frame, Gillies focuses chiefly on the inter-war years.  Piccadilly is so vast a topic that any biography of the place inevitably depends to a large extent on the author’s selection and the availability of material. The author’s technique of scene-setting coupled with telling descriptive detail right down to people’s personal appearance and characteristics lend style and immediacy to Gillies’ text. For example, the pen portrait of bandleader Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson offers important insights. Johnson was “six feet four inches tall and lean…he had an effortless elegance about him. By 1941, when he was twenty-seven and at the height of his powers as a dancer and a bandleader, he had assumed a stylish confidence. The neatly tailored white jacket he wore when he was leading his band … highlighted his taut frame”.

This is an ambitious book that draws upon a wide range of sources including film and archive material.  The narrative arc takes the reader from Piccadilly’s notorious sex trade and its gay cruising haunts through to shop girls, the suffragette movement, and the rise of middle-class consumerism in the form of department stores, and Lyon’s Corner Houses.  Gillies interacts with her material, offering a running commentary on important social changes. She reflects, for example, on Swan & Edgar’s tacit support of the suffragette cause despite having its plate glass windows smashed by activists for the cause.

At this point, I have to confess to having an ulterior motive in writing this review as my own book, Piccadilly, London’s West End and the Pursuit of Pleasure came out in 2021, a year before Gillies’ title. Was this book direct competition? I was relieved to discover that the overlap was minimal.

My book is essentially a three-hundred-year history of the street, the mile long Western gateway to London that was famous for its coaching inns and for its historic enterprises like The Ritz, Hatchards and Fortnum and Mason. My own broader definition of Piccadilly pushes the boundaries to include St James’s, Mayfair, Soho and London’s Theatreland, of which Piccadilly Circus is the undisputed hub. Casting my biographical net wider, I have been able to bring to life such a cast of characters as the Hottentot Venus, PT Barnum, General Tom Thumb, “Gaiety” George Edwardes, Alfonso Nicolino Romano, Gertie Millar, Maskelyne and Cooke, C.B. Cochran, Florence Mills, Al Bowlly, shady nightclub queen Ma Meyrick, and Paul Raymond of Revuebar fame.

If you are feeling like tackling Piccadilly or planning a London tour then I would recommend both books. To have two such books both written during Covid lockdown is surely a testament to the West End’s enduring appeal.
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Piccadilly: The Circus at the Heart of London (384 pp) is published by Two Roads publishing, 2022 ISBN 978-1-529-33971-0 with a cover price of £25
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Stephen Hoare is the author of two histories of London –

Palaces of Power: The Birth and Evolution of London’s Clubland published by The History Press 2019. ISBN 978-0-7509-97270 Paperback price £17.50

Piccadilly: London’s West End and the Pursuit of Pleasure published by The History Press 2021. Price £20 ISBN 978-0-750-995658

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